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New York City
October 2002

Back to Math and Science
by Janet Perna

As our kids get back into the swing of school, teachers, parents and business leaders need to remind our young people that math and science education is as vital to their future as it is to ours. An amazing paradox has grown up in recent years between the kind of society we live in and the skills that are essential to its success. Young people, in particular, have become rabid consumers of all things technological–from Internet chat rooms, to cell phones, CDs and DVDs–yet they are increasingly out-of-step with the math and science skills that produce these wonders.

A look at some numbers illustrates that this technical skills gap is growing. The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century revealed that by 2008, the technology-driven economy will add 5.6 million jobs in the health sciences and computer industries that require science and mathematics skills. Meanwhile, more tech workers are retiring and precious few are ready to take their place. Consequently, the US has dropped from third to thirteenth in the world in terms of the proportion of 24 year-olds who hold natural science or engineering degrees.

While thousands of essential technology jobs remain vacant, our nation’s technology needs continue to grow–for everything from ensuring adequate food and water supplies to new medical treatments, environmental protection and national security. We are on the threshold of unprecedented advances in our understanding and application of technology itself, which will create career opportunities for science and math students that we cannot even imagine today.

Where will the technical specialists come from to power this future? And why, in these economically uncertain times, aren’t more students pursuing studies that will lead them to these career opportunities?

A major part of the answer lies in the fact that too many of our young people are not encouraged in the middle grades to take advanced math and science courses. Consequently, they are ill-equipped to take college courses leading to careers in science, math and engineering.

This de-emphasis of math and science falls especially upon women and minorities. As a result, while women make up 50 percent of the work force and 30 percent of doctors and lawyers, fewer than 10 percent of engineers are women. And the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in the highly marketable computer-science field has dropped from 37 to 28 percent over the past eight years. Similarly, African-American enrollments in engineering are down by 10 percent over the last 10 years, and only 5 percent of the nation’s engineers are black. Taken together, the black, Hispanic, and native-American communities constitute only about 6 percent of the two million scientists and engineers in the United States.

These numbers, and the diversity and career issues they represent, should deeply concern all of us. However, there are some hopeful signs on the horizon. One is the “Tech Talent Act” passed recently by the House of Representatives that authorizes $390 million over the next five years for science, math, engineering, and technology programs. This crucial bill would strengthen programs at the National Science Foundation to expand the number of U.S. students majoring in these disciplines. This legislation should be swiftly enacted.

We can all do a number of things to improve this picture. We must support national advocacy, research, and policy organizations working to redress the under-representation of women and minorities in technical careers. These groups need both funding and volunteers. And companies must focus upon attracting and retaining women and minorities in IT positions.

But most of all, parents, teachers, business leaders–all of us must encourage and influence our children to find rich and rewarding careers in math and the sciences. Tell them and teach them about the exciting opportunities that await them. Our nation’s future depends upon this effort, an effort that we all must take personally.#

Janet Perna, general manager of Data Management Solutions for IBM Software, was formerly a math teacher.


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Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.


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